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Lone Pine man busted for looting ancient site

June 6, 2011

Shown here is an archaeological site, a Native American burial ground, that was allegedly disturbed and looted by Lone Pine resident Norman Starks. As part of a court injunction, Starks is banned for life from entering those particular lands. Photo courtesy BLM

A local man has been caught digging for Native American artifacts near Lone Pine and, through a plea agreement, is now banned for life from entering certain lands in that area. However, this is reportedly just one of 30-40 acts of looting allegedly committed by Norman E. Starks of Lone Pine.
Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation Tribal Preservation Officer Kathy Bancroft said that Starks has been seen digging in other areas since the January 2011 court decision. Starks could not be reached for comment.
According to the court settlement from the Bureau of Land Management, Starks “has accepted an injunction that will ban him for life from visiting approximately 700 acres of public land in eastern California. In exchange the State of California has agreed not to pursue prosecution against the individual for four archaeological resource violations.”
Starks reportedly did not concede guilt, but agreed never to return to the area. Starks will be arrested if he is seen on these lands.
Starks’ ban is the result of a state jury trial with Inyo County jurors. The jury was hung as a few jurors reportedly supported Starks’ “right to have access to public lands,” said Bancroft, who also testified at the trials and conducted post-trial interviews with some of the jurors. In lieu of a sentence, Starks agreed to the ban.
The act of enforcing the ban as well as educating the public as to where the sites are and to respect them is a dilemma in itself. Barcroft explained that the tribe and others are trying to teach the public what to look for in a looter and a cultural site. She said that to advertise the location of sites would surely bring dozens of “Starks” looking for treasure, but a total lack of outreach and public awareness could cause significant damage as well.
“That’s the real Catch-22,” Bancroft said, trying to educate without revealing too much.
Bancroft said she was unaware of Starks’ motivations – whether he is adding to his own collection or selling the highly valued artifacts. She said one thing is for sure: she knows Starks, or any other person, would get angry if someone was digging up the cemetery of their relatives. She said she doesn’t understand the disrespect of looters who think it is their right to access any lands in the country and do with it what they wish.

The Looting

BLM Archaeologist Greg Haverstock and BLM engineer Jeff Yanez said they witnessed Starks digging in a known and newly identified “pre-historic mortuary site” with a golf club. Haverstock’s written testimony states that on June 11, 2009 he and Yanez first saw “sand being flung into the air” near a site in the vicinity of Owens Lake. Haverstock said that he recognized Starks and slowly approached him and his dogs to question what he was doing. Haverstock observed Starks disassembling ancient cairns, or rock stacks, digging around near them, then quickly reassembling it.
“Digging for old coins,” was Starks’ response, according to the transcribed dialogue between Haverstock and Starks in the testimony. Starks also said he was using the golf club as protection from rattlesnakes.
Haverstock said he pointed out that the spot where old coins would likely be was several dozen meters from where Starks was digging.
“You can’t stop people from coming onto public lands,” Starks said and started heading toward his vehicle.
Starks eventually gave himself away when Halverstock asked him how he had come by so many pre-historic metates (stone blocks with smooth shallow surfaces used for grinding grains) that sit on Starks’ porch.
Haverstock asked Starks if he had been told by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power not to come on its property and loot further archeological sites.
Starks, a former DWP employee, told Haverstock, “No, they have not.”
Halverstock stated that Starks’ pants pockets were visibly filled with small objects.
Before Starks sped away, Halverstock took photos of Starks and the scene. Halverstock was later joined by BLM and Forest Service law enforcement officers and determined that Starks was not looking for coins but was digging only near the cairns.
Starks had been caught looting in the same area in 2004, but prosecution proceeded at a geological pace. A letter from Richard Button, tribal chair of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and representing the Reservation, was sent to Senator Buck McKeon in July 2008, “conveying our frustration there has been no ‘movement’” to prosecute Starks. The letter was dated at nearly the end of the statute of limitations on the case.
The location of the site has not been released for safety of the site, but it has been identified as one of 15 locations now referred to as the Owens Valley Mortuary Complex.
“It’s OK to look,” Bancroft said of artifacts, “but don’t take things – that’s all we ask.”

Prosecution Problems

Bancroft said she believes the trouble with prosecuting looting cases is that there is little interest by the courts. She credits Starks’ recent trial to a judge that finally took an interest in the case as well as a better presence of BLM law enforcement.
A lack of interest might be due, she said, to a lack of education about the cultural importance, value and relevance of Native American artifacts and grave sites.
She said the tribe is trying to fight looting with education. She said that the public, including judges and lawyers, need to know of the significance of burial sites and other artifacts, “that cannot be replaced.”
Being nomadic, local tribes did not have a central cemetery; the dead were buried where they died. She said some of the graves are 1,000 years old.
At the trial, Bancroft said neither attorneys nor the out-of-town judge knew much about looting laws or the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
NAGPRA, under the auspices of the National Park Service, is a federal law that states artifacts must be returned to the rightful tribe or heirs and outlines penalties for trafficking of artifacts – a possible sentence of up to five years in prison for repeat offenders plus restitution.
This week on the popular auction site,, a “Big Slough Arrowhead Guaranteed Ancient” was selling for $350 and a “Vintage Native American 1880 Apache Olla Basket” in “Mint” condition was selling for $26,000.
Bernadette Lovato, Bishop BLM Field Office manager, said that the agency is working with tribes and others on education and outreach to convey that it is not appropriate to collect items on public lands.
“Looting is inappropriate,” Lovato said, “and it’s important for the public to know that when artifacts are taken, they cannot be enjoyed by others and the affects on science can be detrimental.”
And, echoing Bancroft, Lovato said she would not allow or appreciate someone digging in the graves of her relatives.
Anyone who suspects they have found an ancient site or artifacts or has witnessed someone digging in public lands should call the nearest tribal office or BLM. Digging or otherwise excavating on public lands is not allowed without a permit. Lovato added that if someone does catch or see a looter to not attempt to make contact personally but first gather as much information as possible about the subject, particularly vehicle descriptions or plate numbers, and call the BLM office or local law enforcement.
The number for the BLM office in Bishop is (760) 872-5000; the Benton Tribal Office is (760) 933-2321; Big Pine Tribal Office, (7600 938-2003; Bishop, (760) 873-3584; Lone Pine Reservation, (760) 876-1034; and the Fort Independence Tribe is (760) 878-3200.

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